I’ve seen some believers recently repost a story about a church that wasn’t able to meet together in their building, so they met at a local Walmart. Rather than celebrate with them this act of holy rebellion, I have some questions. Sure, it reflects a complete lack of understanding of the risk levels of worship and whether a church’s practices make a store or restaurant a poor comparison. But my concern is deeper: I wonder if anyone in Walmart that day was attracted to the gospel because of this improvised service. Was it the aroma of Christ to those employees and customers? Was that even on the minds of the church leaders?
My frustration during the second phase of this pandemic is that many churches are hyper-focusing on their rights and their comforts rather than equipping their people for these unique times. They’re focusing internally on whether and how they can hold services, when their congregants are lost to know how on earth they can live out the gospel within our socially-distanced, cancel culture. Few church leaders are speaking to how we can advance the mission right now in spite of, through and because of COVID.
I wonder if it reflects a mind block among leaders—something that is not limited to church pastors. Let me explain.
This is the greatest opportunity in our lifetimes for the Church. Rather than try our best to get back to the halcyon days of February 2020, we need to look for what doors God is opening right now. Churches need to realize this isn’t going away soon, and lesser imitations will only make people crave the old days, the old ways. Once church leaders cross the bridge in their thinking—that we won’t be back to normal on November 4, or even a year from now—then they’ll start seeing the opportunities. What opportunities? I’m glad you asked.
First, we have the same opportunities that the Church had in 1918-1920, when Christians died serving their communities in spite of risks of Spanish Flu. The parallels are clear. Governments today are following the same pattern of lockdowns, quarantines and masks. Churches had similarly-diverse responses: while some pushed back on religious freedom grounds, others got busy serving. These examples in Nashville, Tennessee, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are inspiring: when in-person church services were shut down, Church of Christ and Episcopal pastors offered their buildings as field hospitals. A.B. Lipscomb wrote in the Gospel Advocate that the epidemic had “opened up a way for the enlargement of the sympathies of Christian people.”
In South Dakota, the 1919 conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church report notes:
Immediately after the conference last fall (1918), the churches were closed on account of the influenza, some for several weeks, and some for several months. This enforced vacation gave our pastors an unusual opportunity to minister to the people in their need and their sorrow. Almost without exception the pastors were alive to the situation and cared for the sick, carrying them cheer and comfort, and in hundreds of cases, burying the dead, some pastors conducting as many as 40 funerals during the ravages of this awful epidemic.
Probably 70-75 percent of the pastors or their families were stricken with the disease, but there was not a death in one of the parsonage homes in the district, and of the unusually large number of funerals conducted by our pastors during this time, it was most remarkable that our church members constituted a comparatively small percentage of the total number.Capital Journal, Mar 19, 2020
Second, this is an enormous opportunity to adapt our model. I’m waiting for churches to begin truly innovating. In the early days of COVID, when churches had to scramble because they were suddenly locked down, there was some experimentation. Churches tweaked their practices out of necessity. But going to online streaming, virtual communion and squirting holy water isn’t really innovation; most of it could be categorized as lesser imitations of the original.
Let’s look at a parallel. To walk into most restaurants today is a depressing situation. Tables are marked off and furniture stacked in a corner. Hastily-improvised plexiglass screens are hung around the register, ordering counter or concierge desk. These adjustments have all the markings of an expectation that this is a short-term inconvenience. If restaurants in urban centers are struggling, you can imagine how challenging it is for an island setting, so imagine my surprise when my wife and I walked into The Groove Kitchen + Cafe in Mayne Island, BC last week.
The owner shared with us about how difficult the past few months have been for their business, and they almost didn’t make it. Hearing his story, I fully intended to tip well. So, when I went to pay and there was no opportunity to add a tip, I asked. He asked me, “What would you be tipping for?” They’ve reduced their services and costs so much that he believes tipping would be unreasonable. They’ve streamlined their staff from 14 to 2. No dishes to wash. All ordering goes through their website, with customers encouraged to order ahead of time and given the opportunity to eat on site, pick up the prepared order, or grab pre-packaged ingredients and cook the menu at home. All their seating is outside, and they used the inside space to launch a specialty grocery store for the items in their menu and ingredients unavailable elsewhere on the island.
The owner told me he wished they’d made these changes years ago. “We’ll never go back!”
Innovation is coming to our industries. If existing restaurants, stores, businesses and congregations don’t get there, new upstarts certainly will. We know the Church will go on for another generation, but it may not be traditional churches that do, or even church plants that do their best imitation of the the model that has been successful in the past decade. The question is who is going to get there first?
I submit that it will the leaders who stop lamenting the way church was done and seek out the new opportunities in this virus and ways to do things differently. They’ll draw the best ideas from other industries, and they’ll create some fresh interpretations of ancient practices. Some of these ideas will fail, but a new model will surely emerge from their efforts. Some of them will see the new version and conclude, “We’ll never go back!”